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Book Review

In 'Bishop's Daughter,' a famous father's life is put into perspective

Honor Moore's memoir looks at the life and times of Episcopal priest Paul Moore, who served as bishop of three cities. Honor Moore's memoir looks at the life and times of Episcopal priest Paul Moore, who served as bishop of three cities. (KEYUR KHAMAR/BLOOMBERG NEWS)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Judy Bolton-Fasman
May 31, 2008

The Bishop's Daughter
By Honor Moore
Norton, 365 pp., $25.95

It is not easy to be a preacher's kid, or PK; they are both privileged and burdened by having a clerical parent. Not many PKs dealt with a parent as public and prominent as Bishop Paul Moore. "The Bishop's Daughter" is Honor Moore's memoir of her brilliant, activist father and is set against significant moments in political and social American history that he influenced.

A poet and writer of creative nonfiction, Honor Moore was the eldest of nine children born to Paul and Jenny McKean Moore. Both Paul and Jenny came from wealthy families. Honor writes that as her father began to work with the poor in Jersey City, N.J. - his first appointment as an Episcopal priest - he "became embarrassed by Hollow Hill [the family mansion on the outskirts of Boston]. Its pleasures made him uneasy: how was he to integrate all of this to . . . what he now saw in Jersey City?"

The Moore family made its fortune in the industrial age and lived a life of tempered luxury that featured butlers and polished silver. The McKeans were Boston Brahmins. Jenny's mother, Margarett Sargent McKean, a distant cousin of the painter John Singer Sargent, was also an artist, one who abruptly abandoned her burgeoning career as she descended into alcoholism and depression. She was endlessly fascinating to Honor, who wrote the biography "The White Blackbird: A Life of the Painter Margarett Sargent by Her Granddaughter."

Equally captivating to Honor was her lovely, volatile mother, Jenny, who died of cancer at the age of 50. At times this devastating, poetic memoir veers between Paul and Jenny, but its story ultimately belongs to the bishop's daughter. Honor writes, "Reading my journals now, I am not in search of the story of my mother as I was in 1974, but of the story of my father and me. I find it, embedded."

Jenny McKean Moore, also a writer, published a well-received memoir of the family's decade in Jersey City. Honor observes that while her mother "pursued a life of service in partnership with [her husband], her spiritual life was independent and entirely her own. It was as if two artists, one a painter and one a sculptor, had decided to marry and live together - the relationship would be one of mutual criticism and inspiration, but the work would remain separate."

That separation, which eventually became a chasm impossible to cross, is the running theme that Honor teases out of the extensive collection of letters her parents wrote to each other during World War II and the deep conversations she coaxed out of her elderly dying father. Pre-publication buzz about this book has made much of Paul's bisexuality. But it was his bisexuality that has given his daughter the courage to understand her own sexual relationships with women and men, to write about them movingly and in concert with her father's secret love affairs with men.

Paul served with the Marines during the war and came back from the Pacific Theater with "the one-thousand-mile stare." Like the biblical Adam who was thought to have been able to see future generations with his own idiosyncratic stare, Paul Moore was both blessed and cursed with some of Adam's far-sightedness. After the war his racism and anti-Semitism were magnificently transformed into a faith inspired by a thirst for social justice. He explained his change as simply seeing "Jesus Christ in the faces of the poor." After distinguished service as bishop of Indianapolis and Washington, D.C., he was confirmed as bishop of New York City in 1972. His pulpit was in the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine.

At the end of his life, Bishop Moore's bisexuality was suddenly exposed, derailing an exemplary life in the church that he lovingly served for most of his life. Although he was not defrocked, he was "inhibited," a medieval ecclesiastical term that meant he was prohibited from performing confirmations and ordinations as well as celebrating communion.

If only he had lived long enough to see Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, become the bishop of New Hampshire. If only he could have read "The Bishop's Daughter," a book in which his aptly named daughter honors him for the way God created him and intended him to be in this world.

Judy Bolton-Fasman writes the weekly parenting column for The Jewish Advocate and is at work on a memoir.

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